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In 1935 Essington Lewis, the then managing director of BHP, returning from a trip to Europe, concluded that war was inevitable and was concerned at Australia’s lack of manufacturing industries that could sustain us should we be cut off from our traditional lines of supply.

He mounted a campaign to persuade the government to establish an aircraft industry to manufacture planes and aircraft engines. The government readily agreed and the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) was formed as a Joint venture between BHP, ICIANZ, GMH, Orient Steam Navigation Co and Electrolytic Zinc Corp, all major Australian companies.

In 1937 a factory, with an adjacent airstrip, was built at Fisherman’s Bend, only 3 kms from the CBD.

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a modern aerial view of Fishermens Bend

In the same year CAC also purchased the Tugan Aircraft Company based at Mascot in NSW. Tugan was headed by Lawrence Wackett as general Manager. In 1935 Wackett had led a mission to Europe and the USA to evaluate aircraft types suitable for Australian needs and within our manufacturing capabilities.

 

The North American Harvard was selected and with CAC modifications became the Wirraway. This aircraft was a trainer and as well as the aircraft itself, CAC also manufactured the Pratt & Whitney engine and the propellers that drove it. At the time there was a world-wide shortage of propellers.

 

 The Wirraway was the original product of the Australian aircraft industry. It was under production from 1939 to 1946 and used as a trainer and general purpose aircraft by the RAAF and the RAN. It was used as a light bomber and ground attack army co-operation weapon but was outclassed as a fighter against the Japanese Zero. It is credited with only one Japanese aircraft shot down as a fighter but as a ground attack aircraft its slow speed enabled it to fly safely at very low altitudes. In the Wewak campaign it is credited with great success against Japanese anti-aircraft batteries for its ability to fly so low over the jungle treetops that it was come and gone before the Japanese gunners could traverse their guns to meet it.

 

The Wirraway led to the development of a second combat aircraft produced by CAC; the Boomerang. This aircraft was the first combat aircraft to be wholly designed and built in Australia. It set a world record of three months for time from drawing board to production line in 1942 to meet the urgent needs of the RAAF for a fighter aircraft.

 

This plane underperformed contemporary fighter aircraft and rarely saw combat. It was used to equip home based squadrons thus releasing higher performance aircraft for overseas duty. It did have some operational assignments operating from bases in New Guinea and later in Borneo. It had no recorded kills against Japanese aircraft but its presence was a deterrent to Japanese bombers. Like the Wirraway its main role was as a ground attack aircraft and artillery spotting. Production ceased in 1945 when the war ended. The only known example still flying is with the Temora Aviation Museum at Temora in NSW.

In 1941, CAC produced its second internally designed aircraft. The Wackett trainer, named after its designer and built to meet a RAAF specification for a first elementary flying training aircraft. It was employed at all training schools throughout Australia but when war ended, so did the Wackett. All remaining aircraft, about 130 of them, were sold off to private individuals and the Indonesian air force.

 

After war ended in 1945, CAC remained in the aircraft production industry by building planes under licence from overseas manufacturers. Its most notable models were the P-51 Mustang and the F-86 Sabrejet. The Mustang was one of the outstanding fighter aircraft of WW2 but its production at CAC only started late in the war and ended when the war ended with only 17 units being produced.Sabre production continued until 1961 when it was replaced by the French Mirage. During this post war period CAC also produced the Winjeel and Macchi trainers for the RAAF.

This was the last full production of aircraft. CAC then became a component and engine manufacturer and finally a bus body builder. In 1985 CAC was sold to Hawker de Havilland which, in turn was sold to Boeing

On 1st July, 1939 the Australian government established its own aircraft manufacturing operations at Fisherman’s Bend alongside the CAC factory and at Mascot in NSW. The new organisation was commonly known as Government Aircraft Factories (GAF). Its initial role was to build the Bristol Beaufort under licence for delivery to both the RAAF and RAF. The Beaufort was a twin engine medium and torpedo bomber. It was used extensively throughout the war until declared obsolete in 1945. 746 Beauforts were built by GAF during the war.

P029988 Beaufort Mk.VI T9626 A9 59 DAP Fishermans Bend c

 

The Beaufort had a succession of unexplained training losses. Aircraft crashing for no apparent reason. It was discovered that a design flaw was the cause. The exhaust system provided heat for the heating system and leakage of exhaust gasses into the cabin caused carbon monoxide poisoning of the crew. Carbon monoxide is an odourless poisonous gas. The crew would be unaware of its presence and passed out with the resultant crash killing all on board. My father was part of the investigating team that identified the fault.

In 1944 Beaufort production ceased and was replaced by the Bristol Beaufighter. The Beaufighter, christened by the Japanese as “Whispering Death”, was one of the iconic aircraft of WW2. It was flown by all British Empire air forces, the USAF, the air forces of several other countries and the Luftwaffe using captured aircraft. It had multiple roles as a night fighter during the Battle of Britain and every theatre of the war. In late 1942 the Mosquito took over some of its operational roles and it was used more and more as a heavy attack and fighter aircraft. Being twin engined its nose was free to accommodate heavy 20mm cannon, rockets and bombs. It was particularly effective against shipping and played a leading role in SW Pacific operations with both the RAAF and USAAF. One of its stellar campaigns was in the Battle of the Bismark Sea when a convoy with 15,000 Japanese troops was destroyed by the combined efforts of the RAAF and US air forces.

 

There are no known units flying today. There are a number of static displays, including the Australian War Memorial and the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, has one under restoration to be brought to flying standard.

In 1945,work had commenced on the production of the Avro Lincoln bomber. This was a variant of the famous Lancaster. It was the last piton engined aircraft to be operated by the RAF.73 units were eventually built by GAF and served with the RAAF in the Malaya Emergency. These units were generally used to replace the American Liberator bombers used by three RAAF squadrons. They were retired from operations in 1961 when corrosion of the air frames became apparent after service in tropical climates.

avro-lincoln_bg-472x295.jpg

In 1953, GAF built 43 Canberra jet bombers, eight of which served with the RAAF in Vietnam. The Canberra was specifically chosen by the RAAF because of its nuclear armament capability. This was never installed but its potential was considered to be a deterrent to any hostile forces of which there were many at the time. Rapid development of combat aircraft overseas soon made the Canberra obsolete and in 1963 the government decided to replace it with the F-111. Due to numerous delays in F-111 production the Canberra remained in service with the RAAF until 1982. In Australia we have and numerous static displays and two flying units at Temora Aviation Museum and HARS at Illawarra Airport near Wollongong.

 

The sophistication of modern high performance aircraft was beyond the capabilities of the Australian aircraft industry and its talents were directed towards manufacture of foreign designs under licence, missile and remote controlled pilotless aircraft, all of which were designed and built by GAF, and unsophisticated smaller aircraft. The best known of these was the Jindivik

In 1963 the government decided to replace the Sabre with the French designed Mirage jet fighter. 116 of these were made under licence modified by GAF to RAAF specifications. These remained in service until 1988 and the final 50 were sold to Pakistan in 1990.

 

One of the sad stories to come out of GAF is that of the Nomad. A top class in house designed and manufactured aircraft but a commercial failure. It compared favourably in every way with the Canadian

Twin Otter but production costs in Australia defeated it in the end. These same forces also brought about the demise of GAF. In 1995 it was privatised and sold off to Boeing. The factories and airstrip at Fisherman’s Bend are long gone. Today the site is a mixture of factories and parkland and if one stands there today it is impossible to imagine that it ever existed. The high rise buildings of the Melbourne CBD and Southbank at one end and the Westgate Bridge at the other.

It is so far gone from posterity that not even the ghosts of WW2 can be seen, heard or felt there yet despite the handicap of our high cost of production, the aircraft industry in Australia flourishes today in the hands of private enterprise centred on Boeing and de Havilland.

 Montys note: I couldn't decide which videos to include so I put most of them in. I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I did.

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